Friday, February 10, 2012

Two Stories: Forests, Fields, Food

Originally published January 30, 2011

The coastal peninsula where we have our home is largely rural, with plenty of small local farms and a strong culture of organic farming, self-reliance, and back-to-the-land homesteading. Some of this culture is general to Maine, which has the oldest organic farming and gardening organization in the country and an even older tradition of rugged individualism. Some is specific to this peninsula, where Helen and Scott Nearing had their final homestead, and where the generation that followed in their wake is a strong local subculture. As a result there is no shortage of good fresh local food, or of people with lots of specific practical knowledge that a preindustrial farm family or modern homesteaders require. We take advantage of both: buying as much of our food from local farmers as possible and knowing that if we have a specific question about problems with a fruit tree, using seaweed for compost, keeping bees, making hard cider, finding seeds for herbs, or a thousand other things, the answer is only a phone call away. Of the five other families in my daughter’s homeschooling group, one owns a meat and dairy farm; another makes just about everything they use, including house, clothes, furniture and food; another runs a local food nonprofit and was formerly executive director of the Good Life Center, the nonprofit that maintains the Nearings’ last homestead and offers programs that advance their values and writings.

So when I write critiques of farming or agriculture, or of the economies that have evolved around them, it is not without a certain ambivalence.  Although I think the critiques are valid and necessary, I run the real risk of offending our friends and neighbors. On the one hand the local farmers and farm activists are among the small minority of Americans who care deeply enough about issues such as food sovereignty, social justice, and the equitable distribution of resources to dedicate their lives to improving them. On the other hand the tradition that we and they are a part of has been responsible for wholesale ecological destruction that really has no precedent in North America. Colonial and early American farmers leveled whole ecosystems, drove species to the brink of extinction or over, eliminated others that interfered with their farm economies, destroyed or displaced native cultures, and in the Southeast created vast agricultural economies based on slave labor. And while I believe that small organic farms are better in every sense of the word by at least an order of magnitude than the horror that is industrial agriculture, I also believe that the uglier side of agriculture and the uglier aspects of its history are too often glossed over. It is always easy to find a villain—some alien other—to blame for the world’s ills. The present favorites are corporations, the financial system, and corrupt governments. It is much more difficult to expose to hard scrutiny our own values, practices, and culture. We run the risk of finding the villain in a mirror.

I want to be clear, however, that the target of my criticisms is a culture, an economy, and the myths and values that support both. Individual family farmers today are more often victims than perpetrators of the vast crimes against the community of life that our culture commits as a matter of course. At worst they can be accused of not having spent the literally thousands of hours in research necessary to tease out the relationships among food, energy, history, ecology, money, profit, and demographics that are all implicit in our agricultural economy. All the family farmers I know lead very busy lives. None of them are getting rich. Most struggle to break even.

This past week we got a flyer from a local farmer we know. He wanted his customers to know that he was now certified organic and that he had just cleared another fifteen acres of forest to create a cow pasture where he would raise grass-fed beef. Everything in our culture right now is telling him that virtue is on his side. Local. Organic. Grass-fed. Traditional, like the colonial and early American farmers who first settled coastal Maine. When the farmer says that he cleared fifteen acres, he means that he removed the forest. Our semi-rural peninsula is today mostly forested, though the original old-growth forest was completely clearcut by the first generations of settlers, mostly between the American Revolution and 1820, when Maine became a state. 

In a blog post last week titled “An Affinity for Tree Groves,” Gene Logsdon suggested that after cutting down the “forest primeval”, Americans had a change of heart and decided to reverse the process. It’s a nice sentiment, but it isn’t supported by the facts. First, the idea that the European setters stumbled upon a primeval wilderness is a myth that has persisted despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. When the first European settlers arrived on the Atlantic coast, eastern North America was home to at least one to two million people. Most of the land was indeed covered in old-growth forest, though the natives had been hunting and gathering in it and cultivating and modifying it for millennia. It was more garden than wilderness, and if its abundance awed the early settlers (as their early writings attest), it may just be that the natives who called the forest home were damned fine gardeners. Second, the forests here on the coast of Maine returned after being cleared by the first wave of farmers because the farmers quickly moved to newly opened frontiers in the Midwest and then beyond. And Americans stopped cooking and heating with wood and switched to coal, oil, gas, and electricity. Since Maine farm families typically burned 20 cords of wood per year, that use alone represented an enormous pressure on the forests. Today 80% of people in Maine heat with oil and it is the most forested state in the country. The hard fact is that if modern Americans had an agricultural and energy economy similar to the early farm settlers, we would have no forests, no matter how much we liked trees. In fact, with our current population, such an economy— and the land uses it implies—is not even remotely possible. Our forest and Mr. Logsdon’s—and the very real pleasures we both derive from them—are artifacts of a fossil fuel economy. 

It is natural, or at least customary, to view the farmer’s clearing of his land from the perspective of the farmer, or of the diner who favors gourmet beef, or of the landscape painter or tourist who admires pastoral scenes, or perhaps even of the cows, who will have a happier, healthier life than their grain-fed, confined, industrial counterparts. The perspective that is ignored is the ecological one. The farmer’s ecology, if that term is even apt, is one taken piecemeal from arid grasslands and the floodplains of the vast rivers where grain agriculture began. Since it is alien to a forest ecology, the forest is simply removed. Our local farmer admitted in his flyer that he hated to see the trees go. But a forest isn’t just trees. The trees provide much of the structure, but the forest is habitat to a whole community of life: mosses, lichens, wildflowers, fungi, amphibians, reptiles, small and large mammals, birds, insects—oak trees alone support 534 species of moths and butterflies, which in turn support all the birds that eat them. What is lost is not only biological diversity, but an accumulated intelligence worked out over millions of years. I should say that if it were just a question of dotting the landscape with intermittent pastures, there would be an ecological benefit to the added habitat diversity—similar to that created by tree-toppling storms and fires. But that is not our recent past, and I don’t believe it is our future if we continue on our present path.

There is a story implicit in the farmer’s relation to the land, and it is our culture’s central organizing myth, the one that informs all the other stories we tell. The story is just a few words long, but its implications are widespread and profound. The story is this: everything belongs to us. It is the story that allows us to remove the mountaintops of West Virginia. It is the story that allows us to level the landscape of Alberta to get at the tar sands underneath. It is the story that gives me a piece of paper that says I own my land and every living thing on it, to do with as I please. The story invests me with enormous powers. But from an ecological perspective, they are powers of destruction. The power to create an ecosystem as complex and diverse as old-growth forest is no more within my grasp than is the power to conjure a solar system into existence. At best I can attempt to preserve it. More likely I’ll degrade it as I integrate it into the economy of money and profit. I might do it slowly, or all at once, but the incentives to do it one way or another are constant and the economy is structured to make them literally irresistible. I could clear our forest, feed our family, and probably make some money on the side—at the cost of removing the community of life that is here now. I won’t do it. I don’t want to be the protagonist of that story. It is the story of an exile, and I don’t want to live the exile’s alienated, lonely life, pursuing fantasies of dominion and control.

The story that whispers everything belongs to us is a very old story, but as I’ve written before, it is a relatively new one to North America. Here, as elsewhere, there is another story, even older. I think if we’re going to stop our culture’s rapidly escalating, terminal crises, more than anything we need to tell ourselves different stories about how the world works. We certainly need different stories if we’re not going to leave as our most enduring legacy a broken, impoverished world. There is little I can do to stop the holocaust that our economy is visiting on the planet’s ecologies. I can control how I make my living, where we get our food, which economies I support, but only to a certain extent. The one thing I can most easily change is the story I tell about the world and my place in it. If I can get the story right, the other necessary changes might more easily fall into place.

We eat meat. This year we shot a bear. We didn’t actually set out to kill a bear, but a bear in the neighborhood had become particularly aggressive. It broke into our car and then into a shed where we keep an ice box. Our two dogs would chase it at dusk every evening but it wouldn’t leave. We talked with the game wardens, who said that they just didn’t hear about this kind of behavior. They suggested shooting the bear. When we told them we had two young children who spent a lot of time outside, they said they would have shot it a week ago. I got out one of our wildlife books and looked up bear biology. Sows give birth to two cubs every other year. A black bear lives for about ten years. That means ten cubs in the life of a sow, eight more than the carrying capacity of the land can support. We knew from sightings and tracks that there was a female with a new cub in the neighborhood. A picture of what was happening formed. One of the bears from the previous litter was being pushed out of its mother’s territory, but had no territory of its own to move into. We shot the bear.  It was a 2-year-old male. When we skinned it we found two teeth punctures in its shoulder. This winter we ate bear meat. The bear lived on its own terms until the last day of its life. Its habitat, the forest, is intact. I can’t imagine a way to build a money economy on those relationships and values, and as long as our culture values money and profit above intact ecologies, the community of life will pay the price. But at the level of a homestead economy, a winter of bear meat works just fine. 

Here’s our story: we are the bear and the deer and the blueberry and the ostrich fern and the grape and the wild strawberry and the milkweed and the pine and the spruce and the oak. Here’s our commitment: to the extent possible, we will get our food and our shelter and our energy from the forest. We will add diversity back to the forest, starting with the numerous understory plants and tree species that were stripped out over the years. We will add other plants native to the eastern forest, but not to here. We will modify the forest where we need to, but only as little as possible, and always respecting its rhythms and patterns. We will take the knowledge we need wherever we can find it, from any tradition that has something to teach. We will only get our food from local artificial field cultures as a last resort and as part of a transition while we learn how to get our living from the forest ecology. Grasslands belong to other places with their own ecological intelligence. The forest is the ecology we have, the home we belong to. Here’s our story: we are the forest.


Helen and Scott Nearing wrote many books about their experiences as homesteaders. The most popular is “Living the Good Life.”

I took the estimate of the native population in eastern North America at the time of European settlement from “Facing East from Indian Country” by Daniel Richter. The literature on interactions between Native Americans and the environment during the historic period and just before has grown considerably in the last quarter century.

Two good books cover the complex, often troubled relationship between forests and agricultural civilizations. “A Forest Journey” by John Perlin is particularly good on wood shortages, which were the chronic energy crises that seem to have afflicted all preindustrial civilizations.

“Forests: The Shadow of Civilization” by Robert Pogue Harrision is a study of the way forests have been portrayed in the literature of the West.

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